The Amazing Floating Markets of Thailand: And How to Photograph Them

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When people mention Thailand, some of the images that come to mind are the postcard photos of beaches, the water festival ‘Songkran,’ or their favorite Thai food. For a photographer, Thailand has a lot to offer. If you are ever in Bangkok for a few days, one of the places you just have to shoot is a floating market.
A popular destination for tourists who visit Bangkok is the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. This market is only one of many around Central Thailand, but it is the one made famous by postcards of small sampans filled with colorful fruit peddled by a smiling Thai woman. Other than this postcard photo that you can easily snap if you visit the Damnoen Saduak floating market, there are many other images you can make. Let me take you on a guided shooting tour of Thailand’s most famous floating market.
Get There Before First Light
Damnoen Saduak is only about 90 minutes outside of Bangkok, so it’s possible to leave around 5 am and reach the market before sunrise. First light is the best time to start shooting at the market. The market itself is very small; it’s a network of canals that surround a village on stilts and the central market of the area. The vendors paddle back and forth in the narrow waterways, and if you stand at certain spots, the light is incredibly beautiful.

floating market at sunrise copyright Aloha Lavina

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Start at first light. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

 
Bring minimum equipment
There is so much to capture at the floating market, so you want first of all to be able to walk around back and forth between the two major waterways. There are also few places to sit unless you count restaurants. So if you want to catch the action, you need to bring the minimum equipment for the assignment. One camera, one wide lens, and one telephoto should do. My motto is, ‘be a photographer, not a lens changer,’ so I schedule the lens change according to the types of photos I am after, rather than changing lenses back and forth all the time.
Knowing When to Go Wide for Best Results

There are times when I go wide to catch the bustle and color.

floating market thailand copyright Aloha Lavina

Go wide to catch color and crowds. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Also good to capture are the patterns reflected on the water.

floating market Thailand copyright Aloha Lavina





Catch the patterns reflected on the water. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

 
Knowing When to Zoom In

Sometimes, you find details that help you tell your story.

flower offering garland Thailand copyright Aloha lavina

Catch detail. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Since the places to stand are limited to the sides of the canals, a telephoto lens is useful for portraits. A zoom allows you to isolate your subjects in the crowded market.
 

floating market vendor copyright Aloha Lavina

Zoom in on faraway subjects using a telephoto. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is open on weekends from sunrise to around 11.00 am, but the few hours it is open gives you enough time to take photos of both early light and second light.
Look for Pockets of Light
Thai people love their noodles, and when you go to the market, you can find the popular noodle boat by looking for the largest crowd seated at the tables nearby. Sometimes, you might get lucky and catch some of the light bouncing back from the risen sun.

noodle seller Thai floating market boat noodles copyright Aloha Lavina

Look for interesting light situations. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

If you move around, you can find a vantage point that gives you a unique lighting situation.

 

floating market Thailand copyright Aloha Lavina

You get lots of practice with light metering at the floating market. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Change Your Vantage Point Often
The floating market is a great place to hone your composition. It’s a place where you get to shoot beside your subject or above them.
 

vendor at floating market Thailand copyright Aloha Lavina

Shoot from beside your subjects. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

vendor at floating market Thailand copyright Aloha Lavina

Shoot from above, too. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

As a tourist spot, I have to say that the floating market is a bit overrated. The postcards always make it seem like it is much bigger than it actually is. But as a place for travel photography, it has everything you need—beautiful light, action, character, color, some pretty good noodles, and it’s close enough to the city that you can shoot it all in one morning. So the next time you visit Thailand, go to a floating market. I guarantee you’ll get some good photos and be at a beach or shopping mall by afternoon.
Aloha Lavina is a Bangkok based photographer whose photographs have appeared in CNNGo (USA), UTATA Tribal Photography Magazine (USA), Seventeen magazine (USA), Estamos! (Ecuador), The Korea Times (South Korea), and several books. You can see her work at her website, read her articles on her blog or follow her on Twitter.

About the author

    alohal

    Aloha Lavina is an Asia based photographer and writer whose photographs and writing have appeared in CNNTravel, Canon PhotoYou Magazine, Seventeen magazine, The Korea Times, and several books. You can see her work at her website and follow her on her blog.

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